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CB's Notebook


October 2008 Archives
October 10, 2008
The Palin Pick -- The Devolution of McCain

This commentary has appeared on AC360/CNN.COM, Huffington Post, and Real Clear Politics.

By Carl Bernstein

In one of our many conversations as we crisscrossed the country during his campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, John McCain said to me, "I've always tried to act on what I thought was the best for the country. And that has guided me.... The only thing I can do is assure people that I would act on principle."

I traveled with McCain for weeks that political season, stayed in Arkansas with him, Cindy, and their children, and - for a Vanity Fair cover profile -- filled dozens of notebooks and tapes with observations from and about a potentially heroic politician who seems far removed from the man running for president today.

Three weeks after the 2008 Republican convention, on the cusp (maybe) of the first presidential debate, it is time to confront an awkward but profound question: whether in picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain has committed -- by his own professed standards of duty and honor -- a singularly unpatriotic act.

"I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," he has said throughout this campaign. Yet, in choosing Palin, he has demonstrated -- whatever his words -- it may be permissible to imperil the country, conceivably even to "lose" it, in order to win the presidency. That would seem the deeper meaning of his choice of Palin.

Indeed, no presidential nominee of either party in the last century has seemed so willing to endanger the country's security as McCain in his reckless choice of a running mate. He is 72 years old; has had four melanomas, a particularly voracious form of cancer; refuses to release his complete medical records. Three of our last eleven presidents (and nine of all 43) have come to office unexpectedly in mid-term from the vice presidency: Truman, who within days of FDR's death was confronted with the decision of whether to drop the atom bomb on Japan; Lyndon Johnson, who took the oath in Dallas after JFK's assassination; Gerald Ford, sworn in following the resignation of Richard Nixon. A fourth vice president, George H.W. Bush, briefly exercised the powers of the presidency after the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan.

Given that history, what does John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin -- the cavalier, last-minute process of her selection and careless vetting; and her over-briefed, fact-lite performance since -- reveal about this military man who has attested to us for years that he is guided by his personal code of honor? "Two things I will never do," McCain told me, "are [to] lie to the American people, or put my electoral interests before the national interest" -- an obvious precursor of "I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war."

McCain, I wrote for Vanity Fair, "often speaks of the duty to follow his conscience in politics, rather than polls or party discipline. This, he says, comes from having escaped death and becoming 'more aware of the transience of everything we do.'"

"I've always had a pretty good idea about how to define something as to whether it's right or wrong," he told me. "I don't mean that I'm better or worse than anybody else. I just mean that when I see an issue and think about it and talk to people, I do generally have the ability to know what's the right course of action, even if it may not be what the majority wants. So I have a certain amount of confidence that I don't have to have a majority opinion on my side."

It does not take a near-death experience to know that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be commander in chief, or that -- in choosing her -- McCain has ignored his own oft-avowed code of conduct. "McCain made the most important command decision of his life when he chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee," noted David Ignatius in the Washington Post. "....No promotion board in history would have made such a decision."

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October 2008 Archives
October 9, 2008
Ayers and the McCain-G. Gordon Liddy Symbiosis

This commentary first appeared on Huffington Post, October 13, 2008.

By Carl Bernstein

Does John McCain "pal around with terrorists?"

Certainly McCain's continuing "association" and relationship with the convicted Watergate burglar and domestic terrorist G. Gordon Liddy might suggest that is the case, if we are to apply the standards drawn by the McCain campaign.

In 1998, Liddy gave a fundraiser in his Scottsdale, Arizona home for McCain's senatorial re-election campaign -- the two posed for photographs together; and as recently as May, 2007, as a presidential candidate, McCain was a guest on Liddy's syndicated radio show. Inexplicably, McCain heaped praise on his host's values. During the segment, McCain said he was "proud" of Liddy, and praised Liddy's "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great." From the program:

LIDDY: Your experience in the Hanoi Hilton is remarkable. I mean, I put in five years in a prison [for masterminding the Watergate burglary, and associated crimes], but it was here in the United States, and they didn't torture - the only torture that I had was being forced to listen to rap music from time to time.

McCAIN: Well, you know, I'm proud of you. I'm proud of your family. I'm proud to know your son, Tom, who's a great and wonderful guy. And it's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon. And congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great.

Which of Liddy's "principles and philosophies" was McCain referring to? Liddy's advocacy of break-ins? Firebombings? Assassinations? Kidnappings? Taking target practice with figures nicknamed Bill and Hillary?

During the same period that Bill Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, Gordon Liddy was making plans to firebomb a Washington think tank, assassinate a prominent journalist, undertake the Watergate burglary, break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and kidnap anti-war protesters at the 1972 Republican convention.

Re: Liddy's "continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great:" Did McCain mean to include Liddy's instructions to listeners of his radio show in 1994 (around the time Ayres and Obama were on a board together discussing education programs and other plots) on how to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents (aim for the head)?

If ATF agents attempt to curtail a citizen's gun ownership, Liddy counseled, "Well, if the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests."

More recently, Liddy explained making the Clintons objects of shooting practice: "I did relate that on the 4th of July of last year, when I and my family and some friends were out firing away at a properly-constructed rifle range and we ran out of targets, and so we - I drew some stick figure targets and I thought we ought to give them names. So I named them Bill and Hillary, thought it might improve my aim. It didn't. My aim is good anyway. Now, having said that, I accept no responsibility for somebody shooting up the White House."

The Liddy-McCain symbiosis has been mentioned in a number of posts on the Internet - mostly by bloggers and sites identified with The Left. But the documentation of their interaction (Liddy has also contributed financially to McCain's presidential campaign) is not a matter of Left or Right: It is astonishing that, given the prominence of the Ayers matter accorded by virtually every "mainstream" news outlet in America, there has been virtually nothing on the subject in the major newspapers and broadcast networks. This is a real journalistic failure and abrogation of responsibility.

Is Liddy any less a domestic terrorist than Bill Ayers? It is a zero-sum argument, for sure. I do not believe, incidentally, that John McCain shares the most abhorrent of Liddy's values, as expressed in Liddy's actions during the same period that Ayers was a Weatherman - and which Liddy continues to express, unapologetically, to this day.

But McCain has now become so unmoored from the principles he once espoused, so shameless in his courtship not only of the Republican "base" but in his eagerness to unleash a poisonous arsenal of character assassination and guilt-by-association - and plain-and-simple incitement of people's fears and prejudices - that, now, inevitably his and Sara Palin's rallies and campaign events have taken on the aura of mobs at times.

"Kill him," a man in the crowd responded last week, when Palin declared -yet again - "He's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." In Virginia, the State Republican chairman announced a set of talking points to campaign volunteers - stressing the incendiary connection, reported Time magazine, between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden: "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon. That is scary," the Republican chairman said.

The most recent McCain ad on the subject shouts, "Obama worked with terrorist William Ayers when it was convenient" - perhaps suggesting, indeed, even that the candidate was there planting bombs.

The intended message of the McCain campaign is, of course, that Obama is less than patriotic - enunciated even by the candidate's wife, Cindy: "The day that Senator Obama decided to cast a vote to not fund my son when he was serving sent a cold chill through my body," she recently told a crowd of several thousand, which also heard her husband and Palin sound similar notes. (The chairman of the Lehigh, Pa., County Republican Party, William Platt, "implored the crowd to work hard to elect McCain or wake up November 5 to see 'Barack Obama, Barack Hussein Obama,' as the president," reported The Washington Post.)

Like Cindy McCain, the campaign's "Ad Facts" also trumpet - misleadingly - the only troop-funding bill that Obama voted against, in 2007 - without noting that Obama first voted for the bill, in a version that included a timetable for withdrawal. Nor did Cindy McCain mention that her husband, too, voted against the troop-funding bill - in the version that contained withdrawal language.

Thus has John McCain embarked on a scorched-earth death struggle for the presidency - cultural warfare that knows no bounds, exceeding perhaps even the mendacity and ferocity of the campaign waged against him by George Bush in 2000, and of which McCain once said there was "a special place in hell" for the Bush operatives who smeared him. (McCain also said of the Swift-boat attacks against John Kerry by Republicans in 2004: "I deplore this kind of politics. I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable.")

The lethal weapon of the McCain campaign's dreams is the explosive allegation that, in Palin's words - Obama "pals around with terrorists." McCain, wisely, did not raise the matter himself in the last presidential debate. Why?

At the time, much of the commentariat attributed the omission to McCain's purported concerns that Obama would respond by reciting the history of McCain's "association" with the S&L swindler Charles Keating, for which McCain was cited by the Senate Ethics Committee early in his career, for exercising "poor judgment" for intervening improperly with federal regulators on behalf of Keating, as part of the infamous Keating Five scandal.

But the more likely explanation of why McCain avoided a debate confrontation about "palling around with terrorists" is McCain's very real - and recent - symbiotic association and praise for another (not Ayers) domestic terrorist emblematic of the Vietnam era: G. Gordon Liddy.

October 2008 Archives
October 3, 2008
What the Palin-Biden debate really told us

This commentary first appeared on AC 360/CNN.COM on October 3, 2008.

By Carl Bernstein

Who won the Palin-Biden debate? Barack Obama, I suspect.

Who was the big loser? In an historic fortnight that had already underscored his erratic nature, John McCain.

The fact that Palin was able to string her sentences together last night – which she couldn’t manage to do in her unscripted interviews with Katie Couric — shows only how low McCain has strapped his presidential quest.

Sarah Palin’s task was an impossible one: to demonstrate that she is ready to be president of the United States. McCain put her in that impossible position; and her performance — all prep and no depth — demonstrated the bind he has put himself in.

Yes, he “energized the base” with his Hail Mary pick of Palin as a running mate. But he also demonstrated cynical disregard for the requirement of stable governance were he to be elected president, and then — through his incapacitation or death — Palin be called upon to exercise the powers of the presidency.

Just how scary a notion that is went on full display last night: She appeared to lack any semblance of the requisite depth, knowledge, or sense of history we should expect in a president or vice president; then she sought to excuse it by saying, “I’ve only been at this for five weeks.”

Yes, she could wink, she could tell Biden, “Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again,” and she could remind us again and again that she is a hockey Mom from the land of Joe-Six-pack (as if Western Republicans don’t swill Pinot Grigio with the rest of the country at their fund-raisers). She seemed incapable of thinking through the American condition and responding to it except by scripted answers, theatrical gestures, and tested buzzwords — and by announcing at the outset that she would decide which questions from the moderator to answer and which to ignore.

Yet Biden’s performance (deeply knowledgeable, sensible, and generally responsive to the questions) was perhaps the best evidence that — considered non-ideologically, but rather on judgment and temperament — Obama may be ready to be president, and McCain — who ought to be ready — is not.

Time after time, Biden had to tell Palin what John McCain’s real record is — as instance after instance — she misrepresented it (or misunderstood the legislative process), repeated easy slogans and bromides and, for the most part perhaps, offended the intelligence of voters who are not already die-hard, ideological proponents of right-wing Republicanism, creationism, or simplistic solutions to tough problems.

“Maverick,” “Maverick,” “Maverick,” she kept repeating about John McCain and herself. Perhaps Biden’s best moment in the best night of his career as a candidate (and I have heard him at his awful worst — i.e., being his own worst enemy) came when he challenged McCain’s constant claim to the Maverick title.

The tactical and intellectual deficiencies of the McCain campaign have been best analyzed by conservative and Republican commentators, and even politicians. George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, Chuck Hagel, come quickly to mind. (Hence, Krauthammer, following last night’s debate: “You can’t blame McCain. In an election in which all the fundamentals are working for the opposition, he feels he has to keep throwing long in order to keep hope alive. Nonetheless, his frenetic improvisation has perversely [for him] framed the rookie challenger favorably as calm, steady and cool.”)

As a former White House (Republican) chief of staff said to me, “Palin is evidence of desperation; she is an embarrassment.” That is the bottom line. (I generally check in with Republicans — not Democrats — to assess how the McCain campaign is doing.) He noted, “She wasn’t vetted, really; it’s an open secret in Washington, but the details of the negligence are better known to Republicans than Democrats.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a future in the Republican galaxy, lacks star power, or couldn’t be a fine Secretary of the Interior in a McCain administration.

It’s too bad. Earlier in his career, until the presidency finally seemed within his grasp, McCain had demonstrated a real willingness to seriously and thoughtfully take on both his party and the Washington establishment when he thought they were wrong — albeit mostly on one issue: pork, an issue he has been heroic on.

But his real opportunity to show independence of his party’s reigning dogma and cultural-warrior-infantry was in his choice of a vice presidential running mate. Instead, McCain, who has lectured us about duty, honor, country first, has left many independent-minded voters who might want to vote for him at an impossible, dangerous impasse: an unprepared vice presidential candidate running on a ticket with the oldest presidential nominee in history — a 72-year-old with four cancer surgeries and medical records he has ordered sealed.

Conventional wisdom has almost always held (JFK-LBJ being a notable exception) that a presidential nominee’s choice of vice president makes no difference in the outcome of the election.

This time it is likely to be determinate, because it tells us so much not only about Sarah Palin, but also John McCain’s state of mind today, and the promise that his political career once held and now appears to have been left behind.

 

 

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